What The Democrats Need To Do To Retake The House In 2018
Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
For most of this decade, Democrats have not understood why they keep losing the U.S. House and state legislatures to Republican super-majorities. It’s not because American voters have moved to the right. The biggest single reason the GOP has that outsized grip on power is because they outsmarted Democrats when drawing political maps in 2011 for U.S. House races and state legislatures. Those maps last a decade and set the stage for our increasingly extreme politics by segregating reliably blue and red voters into non-competitive districts.
That strategy, called gerrymandering, has typically given the GOP an edge of 6 percent or more of the reliable voters. (In these same states, Democrats are packed into fewer seats but typically win by much bigger margins.) The GOP’s voter suppression strategy, like stricter ID rules to get a ballot, builds on this uneven baseline.
Extreme redistricting has become a hot topic. Former President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder are focusing on it. Democratic Party officials in Washington say the GOP’s 2011 gerrymander won’t happen again. In 2016, the seminal book on the topic, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind The Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, by David Daley, explains this starting-line advantage, how it came to pass and its effects.
Now a new edition has been published with an epilogue about 2016. AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld talked with Daley about 2016, and what Democrats are facing in 2018 and 2020. Daley’s take is sobering. He doesn’t think Democrats understand the obstacles to retaking the House, nor do they really appreciate how GOP mapmakers created super-majorities in red states that keep passing far-right legislation. Worst of all, these red state-level super majorities are poised to monopolize the next round of political mapmaking, which will set the national stage for the 2020s.
Steven Rosenfeld: Let’s talk about what happened in 2016. A lot of voting rights activists noted we won big cases against GOP vote suppressors, in Wisconsin and North Carolina. But those states and others remain deeply red. They are passing laws that are as extreme as what we see in the Congress around efforts to repeal Obamacare and gut Medicaid. What’s going on?
David Daley: You don’t get an outcome like this for just one reason. But once you start looking at the world through a redistricting prism, it’s hard to stop. One of the things that happened first of all, is that since 2010 especially, Republicans kept making promises to their base, that they either knew they couldn’t deliver on or had no intention of delivering upon and the accumulated weight of those promises, made those voters angry. What you saw in the [presidential] primaries in 2016, was a 17-candidate field, that essentially came down to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The two folks who were willing to stand on top of this Party and be the loudest, “No.” What also happened is that the Republicans built themselves a Congress that they could not lose a majority of.
They built themselves an unbeatable majority caucus, but they also built a caucus that they could not control for two reasons. The first because these districts began electing deeply conservative members from districts that had once been swing districts. You can look at this in Pennsylvania, in Georgia, in North Carolina. Districts that had gone back and forth throughout the 2000s, are now represented by Tea Party Republicans who win with more than 60% of the vote. That changes the tone and tenure of the body. It sends people to Washington who are not interested in compromise. What it also does is, it signals that the true power is within the primary base of the Party and that even if you want to be a compromiser, even if you want to be a bridge builder or a problem solver, working with the other side is the one thing that will guarantee you that kind of primary challenge. A primary challenge, that, in those districts, in this day and age, an incumbent is likely to lose.
So you’ve seen 50-plus votes on a repeal of Obama Care. The base demanded it. The candidates promised it. They were going to repeal it root and branch, right? Then once you get complete power, it doesn’t happen. That breeds I think, even more anger and cynicism within the base. It will be very interesting to see where those voters wind up in 2018.
SR: Yes, angry times, angry voters. But this is not just Washington. It’s more extreme in many states.
DD: The other piece of this is, as much as we talk about how gerrymandered the U.S. House is, state legislators have been gerrymandered in an even more extreme manner. We’re talking about states like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan. If these states keep sounding familiar, they are the states that helped put Donald Trump in the White House with an Electoral College majority, even though he lost the national popular vote by 2.8 million.
The first thing that these gerrymandered state legislators have done is go after voting rights. You see it in North Carolina, where there was an entire host of things that they did, as far as voter ID, as far as eliminating early voting hours, as far as cutting back on the number of open precincts. It goes on and on. You see it in Wisconsin on the extraordinarily stringent voter ID laws that were passed there. You saw it in Ohio, where they eliminated the Golden Week, where you could register and vote in the same week. You saw it in Michigan, where they simply changed the rules on requiring an affidavit if you didn’t have ID at the poles but they simply didn’t make it clear to people that that was what had to be done. An awful lot of the states, states like Wisconsin, which came down to 23,000 votes. A state like Michigan, 11,000 votes. Pennsylvania, 44,000 votes.
In races this close, it is not difficult to suggest that a deciding factor could well have been the kind of voter suppression laws that these gerrymandered legislators put into effect. When people say, you can’t gerrymander the Electoral College, I think they’re wrong. You quite clearly can. If the next step is that some of these gerrymandered legislators attempt to reapportion their Electoral College votes by congressional districts, that becomes the next piece of how that can go. Some are looking at that.
SR: We’ll have to watch that. But let’s turn to 2018 and 2020 because there’s an expectation that Democrats can take back the House in 2018. You’ve written that’s far harder than people imagine because of gerrymandering. What do you see?
DD: I see a really tight map. Democrats need to take back 24 seats and my challenge to people who say the Democrats can take back the House is, name those districts. And you better name more than just 24 because you’re not going to win all of them. Where are the 60 districts that can be targeted, in order to have a fighting chance of taking back half of them?
SR: Let’s think about that for a second. I’ve heard there might be a half-dozen seats in California, which was not heavily gerrymandered.
DD: I would say there are three seats in California that are very likely targets but if anybody thinks there’s more…
SR: Florida was gerrymandered; Texas was gerrymandered.
DD: It sure was.
SR: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, as well.
DD: That’s the trick. If you take Michigan, if you take Ohio, if you take North Carolina, if you take Pennsylvania, that’s what? Those four key swing states are 44/16 [red House seats to blue seats] and the Democrats have not won a single race in any of those states this decade. They have not flipped a single seat red to blue, in any of those states. If you add in Wisconsin to that, it makes it what? It’s 49/20 and they still haven’t flipped any of those seats this decade. If you add in Virginia, it makes it 56/24 and the only seat then that has gone red to blue this decade, is Virginia’s fourth, which was the court ordered redraw because of racial gerrymandering last year.
When you wipe all of those states off the table, how do you get to 24? The performance of the Democratic Party in these states, largely due to the drawing of these district lines [in 2011’s redistricting], suggests they probably should take them off the table. Where you find those other 24 seats, is extraordinarily difficult. I can see a handful in California. You can possibly see one in Florida. You can see a couple in New York State, but they’re hard to find.
SR: You’re in Washington. You’ve talked to all the people who have run and are running the Democratic campaign committees. You hear Democrats saying, Oh, we’re on it now. Do you just shake your head and think, they’re dreaming?
DD: Yes. They still think that what happened to them in 2010, was a perfect storm. They think that they simply lost a wave election year in a bad mid-term and that Democrats simply didn’t turn out. What they don’t understand still is, that they didn’t get defeated by the perfect storm. They got defeated by the perfect strategy. That strategy has had brutal consequences for the Democrats over the course of this entire decade. Until they come to terms with the way things have changed and the landscape and the districts that they have to run in, they’re never going to fix it.
SR: You persuasively argue that the races that matter in 2018 are the governors’ races in super-majority red states, not control of the U.S. House, because you need a seat at the table to veto the next bad maps that otherwise would last for the next 10 years. Does anybody take that seriously enough?
DD: I haven’t seen any … well, let’s see. The Democrats got into this position because they only focused on the presidency and they stopped caring about the down-ballot races. They became a party that was obsessed at the top of the ticket and the Republicans understood the importance of these down ballot races. Over decades, they built an infrastructure that lead them to the kinds of victories they were able to have in 2010. I still don’t see the proof that Democrats understand that the way back from the hole that they’re in, has to be a similar slow long-term party building strategy in 50 states.
In September and October of last year, Nancy Pelosi was out there saying, “We’re going to take back the House,” and the New York Times, the Washington Post, quoted her and believed it. It wasn’t going to happen. Now Nancy Pelosi has a job to do and that is fundraise and try to drive Democratic Party turnout. I can understand why she doesn’t want to come out and say, Man, the game is rigged, we don’t have a chance, because then all of the donors who feed the consulting class and everything else, have no reason to open up their checkbooks until 2020, right? If you tell people you can’t with the election, they’re not going to bother turning out. It’s one thing to not say that stuff in public, and then to be organizing to do the work in the states.
I don’t see the evidence on a state-by-state basis of a re-energized Democratic Party apparatus. I don’t just blame the leadership of the party. The leadership of the party spent some of that $30 million on Jon Ossoff, but it also was everyday folks who were trying to resist the Trump and do something good by sending off their five, 10 bucks to Georgia 6th, who helped feed that. As long as everyone continues this top-down, flip the House strategy, it is going to interfere with the actual work that needs to be done in these states. Imagine what that $30 million could have done for party-building efforts in North Carolina or in Virginia or Pennsylvania or Michigan. The $30 million is a lot of money and they essentially lit it on fire in Georgia 6th, trying to rent a congressional district for 18 months. That would have done what exactly? Send a message, sure, but in reality, it would have sliced the GOP’s margin down by one. It would not have had the same impact that spending that money on say, Virginia’s House of Delegates races might have had.
In the book, I talked to Chris Jankowski, who was the mastermind of the Republican REDMAP operation [that executed the 2011 gerrymander]. He told me he had to push Republican donors away from the bright lights big city of the presidential race or U.S. senate races. He had to convince them and make them understand that, “No, $10,000, $20,000, $50,000 spent in a Pennsylvania or Michigan or Alabama state legislative race, actually would had more impact and influence and consequence.” Democrats still don’t have a Jankowski who understands this and is willing to make the case at the higher levels and to the donors, that this is what has to be done, if you want to unravel this.
I also think that too many Democrats are overestimating what it means to take back the House in 2018. It would be a consequential check on the Republicans and on Donald Trump. Absolutely. I do not mean to minimize that in any way but Democrats would still have to go out in 2020 and hold those seats on the same tilted maps and it would still be the same incredibly difficult task. Moreover, the new lines that will be drawn after 2020, are not going to be drawn by the US congress. They’re going to be drawn in all of these states. They’re going to be drawn in Ohio, where Republicans hold a 12/4 seat advantage in Congress but a 66/33 advantage in their state house. They have these insane super majorities and you’re not going to get fair congressional lines, until you do something about these insane super majorities in radically gerrymandered states.
SR: There’s more short-term thinking around the Supreme Court. Many people are hoping that the court this fall, in a Wisconsin case, is going to rule there’s a point of unfairness in excessively partisan gerrymanders. I should note that there are two flavors of gerrymandering: racial gerrymandering, which is illegal; and partisan gerrymanders, which so far is legal. People are saying, what Republicans have done is so extreme that it should be illegal and they have ways to measure it. In a recent Court ruling about North Carolina’s racial gerrymanders, the court’s conservatives, without Neil Gorsuch, said excessive partisanship was distasteful but a part of politics. Should we be optimistic?
DD: The Supreme Court has never been willing to rule that the partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. It would certainly be a terrific thing for democracy, if they were finally ready to cross that bridge. All of this rests on Justice Kennedy. Even with Gorsuch on the court, Kennedy remains the swing vote and I was much more optimistic about Kennedy’s mindset, before Harris v Cooper [the North Carolina ruling]. I mean, Kennedy, let’s remember, is the justice who asked for a standard by which to measure partisan gerrymandering.
SR: Yes, but then he signed the dissent saying the liberals went looking for race, found it, and extreme behavior is a natural part of politics.
DD: You cannot count on the Supreme Court and the efficiency gap [the new measure of how many votes are wasted by gerrymandering], as being some kind of democracy miracle drug that will save us. This is 2017. There are two election cycles before 2020, where the state legislative winners will draw the maps. It seems very likely to me that Republicans will keep control of the state legislatures that will draw the maps, the districts that we will be competing on throughout the 2020s. That’s in all the crucial states we’ve been talking about, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin. Republicans will be drawing these lines in 2021. Their majorities in the state legislator are just too big. The lines are too stout and the amount of time left is too short. It’s not crazy or hyperbolic to look at this and say, It’s going to be another decade before Democrats have a chance at fairer maps.
This is why I think it’s so important for them to try to have a seat at the table, by winning these governors races. If they do not win those key races, the 2020 redistricting battle will be over on Election Day 2018, because these governors will be in office in 2021 and it will largely be settled, suddenly you’re looking at 31. I wish I had a more inspiring and optimistic note.
SR: That is so sobering. It raises the question of what are the Democrats’ priorities for 2018. It makes me think these governors’ races and the possibility of a Florida constitutional amendment to re-enfranchise 1.6 million ex-felons, which would completely change its politics, are the game-changers. The House matters, but do we want to live with this GOP crew through 2031?
DD: The Democrats don’t get it yet… Did you see those bumper stickers that DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] put out the other day? It was like, “Democrats 2008. Have you seen the other guys?” This is why I don’t think the Democrats understand what they’re up against because that was their strategy in 2016, right? It was, “Have you seen this guy Trump?” It didn’t work. If the Democrats think that they can just go back and say, “Have you seen the other guy,” and have that work in 2018 and take back the House, I mean, it’s the definition of insanity.
It’s doubling down on the failed strategy last time. They need 24 seats and they keep talking about the 23 seats where Hillary defeated Trump but elected a Republican. That’s the essence of their strategy, trying to win those 23 seats. Georgia 6th was not one of them but it might as well been. Hillary gets 47% there and Ossoff gets 48.1% in the April run-off and then he gets 48.1% in the June election. That’s what $30 million did—budged from 47% to 48.1%. Unless if you’re going to spend $30 million in all of these districts and that wasn’t enough to win…
It’s an incoherent strategy and so far, they’re ignoring all of these other districts. Why do you ignore Montana [where another House special election was held], where there is a Democratic governor, and a Democratic U.S. senator, and it’s an at-large seat [meaning there’s no gerrymandering]? Why would you not consider that a target? The strategy is incoherent. It is not being thought out and it is a mystery to me why any donors keep contributing into this black hole.
They could get lucky, but it wouldn’t have anything to do with a good strategy. The 2016 election ought to teach us all to be careful about our predictions. I’m not going to say it’s impossible to take back the House in 2018, but it’s extraordinarily uphill. Deeply unlikely and in the end, it’s not that meaningful.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).